Willow-bark horn. Mayer Kirshenblatt from Toronto, Canada, made this toy in the early 1980s to replicate a handmade toy he remembered from his childhood in interwar Opatów, Poland. Children made horns like this one in the springtime and called it a trompayte (trumpet) or shoyfer (shofar, the ram's horn blown in the synagogue during the High Holidays). (YIVO)

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Toys and Games

Only sparse information has been gleaned about toys and games enjoyed prior to the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, in East European memoirs describing childhood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the heder (elementary school), where young boys frequently spent long hours, dominates the texts. These depictions portray childhood in general and the heder in particular in the darkest of terms—exposing a brutal regime dominated by ignorant teachers who robbed boys of their childhoods. This image became somewhat more nuanced in literature from the turn of the twentieth century. Still, the extremely negative images substantially served the ideological program of the Haskalah that sought to broaden and modernize Jewish education and Jewish life in general, leading to a more positive attitude toward playing and imagination.

Infancy was doubtless the age when children were considered to be “kings,” according to midrashic interpretation of the stages of human life. However, even lullabies placed an emphasis on study rather than play. Songs such as “Yankele,” by Mordkhe Gebirtig, transmitted didactic messages that were sung to infants and toddlers by their parents and relatives, or by wet nurses in middle-class families:

A little boy, already finished teething,

Who soon, God willing, to the heder will go

To study all the Torah and the Talmud,

Should not he sleep and not be fussing so?

(Translated in Vishniac, 1999)

By contrast, many former pupils idealized the time before their attendance at the so-called dardeki-kheyder, where boys between the ages of three and five learned the Hebrew alphabet and prayers. In places such as Minsk at the end of the nineteenth century, boys received gifts of toys such as dreidels (spinning tops) from their future heder teachers, as recalled by Morris Raphael Cohen (1880–1947), an American philosopher (Cohen, 1975, p. 22).

Marionette. Mayer Kirshenblatt from Toronto, Canada, made this toy in the early 1980s to replicate a handmade toy he remembered from his childhood in interwar Opatów, Poland. (YIVO)

The folklorist Regina Lilientalowa’s Dziecko żydowskie (A Jewish Child; 1904) delineates a rather stifled and suffocated childhood in central Poland, Galicia, Volhynia, and Podolia. The variety of games she discusses were played quietly and mostly indoors, and were designed mainly as counting exercises and for training the mind. Nonetheless, Lilientalowa's impressive data reveals that East European Jewish children, as was true of their non-Jewish counterparts, exercised a good deal of creative freedom.

Children naturally tried to play at every spare moment, seeking activities that would bring them laughter, joy, and amusement. The children’s energy, fantasy, and imagination found outlets in play. And that urgent drive to play, in childhood, before one entered the structures of adult life, was also articulated in traditional Jewish children’s songs such as Mordkhe Gebirtig’s "Hulyet, kinderlekh" (Revel, Little Ones):

Revel, revel, little ones,

Now, while you are still young,

For from the springtime to the winter

Is but an eye-blink long.

(Translated in Vishniac, 1999)

Many factors determined the choice of games and toys. Gender and age constituted two of these. Because nineteenth-century Jewish girls in shtetls for the most part did not receive a heder education, they interacted in a generally female world in which their mothers’ kitchens were schoolrooms. Games served as preparation for their future roles as brides, homemakers, and mothers. But dancing and mime games, the more carefree activities, also belonged predominantly to the world of girls.

Younger girls played internationally popular outdoor games such as skipping, hopscotch (klasn, klasy), and hide-and-seek (bahalterlekh; Pol., gra w chowanego). The girls also played cat’s cradle, heaven and circle, and a ballgame called bikel in which each girl tossed a ball against a wall, counting how many times she could catch it as it bounced back. Younger girls made mud pies and tended gardens with imaginary plants. Girls danced in circles and sang songs such as "Hak meser, brok meser, mir gut, dir iz nokh beser" (Chop knife, cut knife, I feel good, you feel still better).

Younger boys, as well, enjoyed making mud- or sand pies and gardens, and played simple counting and rhyming games such as Enge, benge, stupe, stenge and Eyns, tsvey, dray, lozer lokser-lay, okn bokn, beyner-shtokn onk, bonk, shtonk. Chanting nonsensical rhymes did not have meaning in itself, but rather determined the role of a particular child in a game. Such amusements were considered proper for younger children of both sexes. Boys and girls played games utilizing buttons, pebbles, feathers, and pieces of broken pottery and paper. According to Yekhiel Shtern’s (1903–1981) reminiscences of his childhood in Tyszowce, younger boys liked to bury potato bugs in the ground with coins so as to encourage treasures to grow (Shtern, 1990, pp. 65–66).

Slingshot. Mayer Kirshenblatt in Toronto, Canada, made this toy in the early 1980s to replicate a handmade toy he remembered from his childhood in interwar Opatów, Poland. (YIVO)

Older boys had distinct pastimes and leisure interests. Their games were usually communal and competitive, and belonged to the male realm alone. In his memoir They Called Me Mayer July (2007), Mayer Kirshenblatt recalls that soccer was a particularly beloved game. Older boys often craved the sport as an embodiment and expression of physical freedom; soccer was perceived as a “sweet but all too brief” escape from dim and stuffy heder rooms. Other coping strategies during the long hours of study involved assigning humorous names to heder teachers, such as Royter Borek (Red Beet), and playing tricks on them. Children continued to invent humorous nicknames for teachers in the post-1918 Polish reformed heders where children were encouraged to play during class breaks. Both Jewish boys and girls experienced the compulsory Polish primary school system for the first time, where they also played communal and competitive games. Jewish boys, like their non-Jewish peers, played with toy rifles and engaged out of curiosity in cruel games with insects: worms, bugs, and flies. During summer vacations boys played ping-pong and tennis. Ludwik Stöckel, born in 1914, recalls in a memoir that in the summer of 1925 in Czortków, he played tennis with homemade rackets: “My first ‘racket’ was the wooden lid from a milk jug. Next, we fashioned hoops from wire and ‘strung’ them with pieces of twine. They were, of course, terribly heavy and clumsy, more like carpet-beaters (Ludwik Stöckel, “Adventures along the Way to My Goal,” in Shandler, 2002, p. 156).

In Central Poland, Lithuania, Galicia, and Podolia, older girls and boys were fond of complex and sophisticated verbal games. They would try to pronounce a line of tongue twisters without making mistakes, for example, reciting "Fir por portselayne farfurkes" (Four pairs of porcelain faiences). They also composed riddles of words with double meaning. Many verbal puzzles were strikingly secular in character, grounded in observations of nature and objects of quotidian use. The anthropomorphization of objects was typically exercised in such puzzles as “The maiden has seven dresses, and the one who takes them all off ends up crying. Who is this maiden?” (Answer: An onion). Another asked: “It has white and yellow walls. In order to get to the yellow wall one has to break the white wall. What is it?” (Answer: An egg); “During the day it is asleep, and during the night is alive. What is it?” (Answer: A lamp); and “It does not have a soul or body, but when it is put inside the bed, it rises. What is it?” (Answer: Dough kept under a pillow).

Games for older children were not only more intellectually challenging, but also demanded more physical activity, as with the well-known Sheli-shelokh (Mine and Thine), in which one child tried to break through a line of children holding hands. As a rule, boys played rougher games. One of them was the competitive Kichke-pale or Chizshkes, as it was known in the Polesie region. Kichke-pale was an East European Jewish version of cricket or baseball, and was similar to the English game called Peggy. The kichke was a small peg pointed at both ends, while the pale was the longer stick. The kichke was placed on an elevated spot, near a hole in the ground. The player would hit the pointed end of the peg with the larger stick that would send the peg flying into the air. He would then run and again try to hit the peg while it was airborne, to send it farther away from the plate. The more times one hit the peg, the more skilled the player. The other player would run to get the peg and throw it to the plate. The peg was not to be struck on its return to the plate. But if it were not successfully returned, the first player would then strike the peg wherever it happened to fall. This would continue until the second player got the peg back to the plate, after which he became the striker and the other player, the catcher. The game would go on until the second player scored a given number of hits of the peg, usually twenty or thirty. The loser would then have to give the winner what was called a yarsh, which meant that the winner would have the right to strike the peg even when it was being returned to the plate. The yarsh would end when the peg fell on the plate.

Hasidic boys playing chess, Łowicz, Poland, 1919. (YIVO)

During the long winters, boys indulged in quiet indoor games such as chess, dominoes, and a game of superstition played with penknives. In the latter, they would open the blade and throw the knife to the floor. Before dropping the knife a question would be asked: Is someone our enemy? If the point of the blade remained stuck in the floor, the person mentioned was indeed considered an enemy. If the knife fell back down onto the floor it meant he was not a foe.

In communal games played both indoors and outdoors, children followed a moral code. If a child was discovered to be cheating, the others would surround him and shout “shekernik, shekernik” (cheat, cheat). Such a child would be excluded from the games for a while.

The religious, social, and economic status of the family, and the locality, whether urban or shtetl, were other factors determining children’s play throughout the modern period. The shtetl was generally a world without luxurious or beautiful, foreign-made toys. Children thus created their own toys out of paper, cloth, wood, and leaf. They played with pebbles and used chalk to draw figures on available surfaces, even wooden heder benches and walls. Conversely, by the end of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, children from acculturated and assimilated middle-class families in large cities such as Warsaw, Prague, or Budapest owned fancy and beautiful toys, as did their Jewish and non-Jewish counterparts in Western Europe. Boys enjoyed playing with miniature figures of animals and soldiers, toy horses, and train sets, while girls played with fancy dolls, dollhouses, and miniature replicas of kitchen sets and porcelain services. Some toys were so beautiful and fragile that parents regarded them as special objects to be collected and cherished rather than to be played with. Riding a bicycle outdoors or even at home in large apartments was another favorite pastime of children of middle-class background. They enjoyed playing in designated children’s rooms at home and in playgrounds where they were under the watchful eyes of governesses. Trips to the zoo and to the cinema with parents were other memorable experiences that stimulated children’s imagination and were relived in invented games.

Children playing, Kremenets, Russia (now in Ukraine), ca. 1913. A photograph taken during the An-ski Ethnographic Expedition, 1912–1914. (YIVO)

For Jewish children of lower social classes in urban areas, courtyards constituted central playgrounds right up to the outbreak of World War II. The courtyard was a space where children’s energy and imagination resulted in the invention of spontaneous, competitive, and cooperative games. For example, the memoirist Jakub Harefuler, born in 1921, recalls battles he and his friends fought against children from a neighboring courtyard in Warsaw: “Moniek and Aron were presidents, Saul was a marshal and the most dedicated subject of the king, and the rest were soldiers. We often waged wars with weapons, which we made from long strips of metal that came from packing crates. Our enemy was the neighboring courtyard” (Jakub Harefuler, “Memoir of a Jewish Youth,” in Shandler, 2002, p. 353).

The street was the other important space where children from lower socioeconomic groups ran about and played “cat and mouse” games in summer, and made snowmen and had snowball fights in winter. As a rule, adults did not supervise games played in courtyards and on the streets.

Children from both shtetls and cities tended to devour any available children’s literature, listening to and creating fantasy stories. These tales were filled with sea creatures and plants mentioned in the Bible and the Talmud. Yiddish literature also frequently mediated tales from Latin and Arabic sources, translating them both literally and culturally. The emergence, in the second half of the nineteenth century, of secular children’s literature in Yiddish meant that children’s vivid imaginations became acquainted with non-Jewish stories, universal characters, and adventures like Arabian Nights, and especially the Adventures of Sinbad. In the interwar period when children’s libraries burgeoned at schools and outside, readership expanded. In Poland, for example, Jewish boys and girls read Polish prose and poetry, Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and foreign literature from Russian, French, and German sources, as well as in Polish and Yiddish translations. The readings stimulated children’s imagination and bore fruit in various games embedded in favorite stories.

Jewish ethnographers conducting research on children’s games in the 1920s tended to underscore the uniqueness of the Jewish child’s soul and imagination, expressed in dreams, fairy tales, and games. Yet a careful, in-depth look at the assortment of games played before 1939 points to their varying origins: some had a distinctly Jewish cast, whereas others had a more universal character.

Among the latter was the traditional game Fet in muger (Fat and Thin), or Zimno, ciepło (Hot and Cold), played by Christian Polish children. In this game, children would hide a toy and one child would have to search for it with his eyes closed. When the child was coming closer to the object, children would shout “fet,” and when the child was walking away from it, they would shout “muger.” A communal circle game for younger girls, in which the girl in the middle of the circle would sing “I have a cloth with four ends and whichever girl I most like I will cover her with it,” was a replica of a Christian Polish game, Mam chusteczkę haftowaną wszystkie cztery rogi, played by younger boys and girls as late as the 1970s. Another game, Himlbet (Bed of Heaven), in which a piece of string drawn through one’s fingers would be called various names such as Vasershpil (Water Game) and Betl (Little Bed), was also a favorite pastime of East European non-Jewish children.

Sled. Mayer Kirshenblatt from Toronto, Canada, made this toy in the early 1980s to replicate a handmade toy he remembered from his childhood in interwar Opatów, Poland. (YIVO)

A popular winter indoor game played by younger boys, Iks, miks, driks (Tic-Tac-Toe), closely resembled the age-old, traditional English game of Noughts and Crosses. Sledding and skating in winter belonged to the repertoire of universal games. Moreover, even during the Passover holiday, along with specifically Jewish games such as Gribelekh (Holes), Teler (Plates), and Tate, mame, zun (Father, Mother, Son), played with Brazil nuts and walnuts, children also amused themselves with colored eggs in a game borrowed from their neighbors.

Certain games with a distinctly Jewish cast were played inside and around the heder and during Jewish holidays. Children crafted simple Jewish ritual toys for religious festivals. For example, they made paper flags for Simḥat Torah to be held during the Hakafot procession in which adults carried Torah scrolls. In preparation for Shavu‘ot, boys cut bulrushes to decorate synagogues and homes, arranging them on the floor in the shapes of squares, triangles, and Stars of David. Boys also made decorative paper cuts, designed like roses, called royzelekh. Royzelekh typically depicted biblical scenes and were hung in windows. For the Festival of Lag B’Omer (sometimes called The Festival of Pupils) for which preparations already began during Passover, older boys carved wooden bows and arrows (fayl-un-boygn). On that day, boys would run around a town or a nearby forest, “performing” battles and shooting arrows. Even on fast days like the Ninth of Av, children played battles with wooden pistols and swords, and threw burrs at each other. The eighteenth-century memoirist Dov Ber Birkenthal of Bolechów reports that on the Ninth of Av he carved a wooden sword for his six-year-old stepson. On Yom Kippur, children played with little figures made of candle wax. For the merry holiday of Purim, children decorated the rattles—Homen-gragers and Homen-klapers—that were made by the adults. On Hanukkah, children played with a homemade spinning top known as a dreidel (Pol., fryga); draydl in Volhynia; trendl, shteln, or gor in Lithuania; and trenderl in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Spinning tops and playing various card games were favorite indoor activities during the winters.

Wooden tops, or dreidels (dreydls), made from spools. Mayer Kirshenblatt from Toronto, Canada, made these toys in the early 1980s to replicate a handmade toy he remembered from his childhood in interwar Opatów, Poland. (YIVO)

During World War II, East European Jewish children, the first victims of the Nazi extermination policies, were denied childhood and its pleasures. The world of prewar games and plays came to an abrupt end. Jewish children’s games in Nazi-occupied Europe began to imitate the surrounding harsh and frightening reality and the behavior of adults, including the Germans. Children began to play games like war, crossing the borders, ghetto, bombing, pogrom, or roundups of Jews. Jews were frequently portrayed as powerless victims under the control of others. A memoirist who was a child in Budapest during the war reports:

I made up my own games, too. Once, when my mother was talking with the other war wives, I overheard a phrase that intrigued me. The phrase was, “They will put the Jews in a ghetto.” I had no idea what a ghetto was, but for some reason the phrase stayed with me. One day, I dragged some of the kindergarten tables and chairs to the wall to make an enclosure. I declared that that was the ghetto and we would put all the Jews inside it. A few of my playmates and I started chanting, “They will put the Jews in the ghetto, they will put the Jews in the ghetto.” We grabbed some of the other kids and dragged them, slipping and sliding on their behinds, inside the enclosure. Pretty soon we were all chanting in unison: “They will put the Jews in the ghetto, they will put the Jews in the ghetto.” When my kindergarten teacher heard us, she sharply told us to stop saying that. . . . We played the ghetto game over and over again for weeks.

(Grove, 2001, pp. 25–26)

In the first months after the establishment of 1,100 ghettos throughout Eastern Europe, children were still visible on the streets, playing games such as “orchestra” with different utensils imitating musical instruments, and dancing and singing songs such as “My jesteśmy krasnoludki—hopsa sa” (We are dwarves—whoops!). With the rapid deterioration of living conditions in the ghettos, including the increasing German brutality toward the children, however, they became confined to apartments and hiding places where their sole companions might have been a doll or a wooden horse toy. In the graphic workshop in Terezín, the artist Oswald Poeck designed a Monopoly game to entertain children and to provide them and adults with information about life in the ghetto.

In the Warsaw ghetto, the largest ghetto of Europe, children quickly became accustomed to scenes of daily dying on the streets and would, on occasion, play with adult corpses out of curiosity, as the historian Emanuel Ringelblum reports in May 1941: “The children are no longer afraid of death. In one courtyard, the children played a game tickling a corpse” (Ringelblum, 1974, p. 174).

Some children would play “market,” reflecting on economic activities in the Warsaw ghetto and on the “Aryan” side, as one child survivor reminiscences in an early postwar testimony: I made a stall (stragan) and used to sit there. Sometimes when mother wasn’t nervous and had time, she would sit and play with me. She used to come to me to buy an old overcoat and would haggle with me. However, I wouldn’t sell for any cheaper. . . . There were no children. I used to make figurines from old things, dressing them up in kerchiefs and placing them next to the things as merchants (hendlerns). I talked to them and told them that I had earned nothing the whole day, that these were bad times (Testimony of an unnamed child in Yiddish, Archival Collection of Genia Silkes, YIVO). Children also liked to play “smugglers,” imitating the young inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto who had smuggled food to the ghetto, and who were often shot for their brave acts.

Those Polish Jewish children who survived the war in Russia and in distant regions of the Soviet Union such as Kazakhstan, imitated the games of local Kazakh, Uzbek, and Tatar children whom they observed and with whom they played. For example, in early postwar memoirs of children who had spent time in Kazakhstan, the traditional game Lianga is often recalled, as is leapfrog. Children also recalled playing age-old Russian games like Shagardai, Shtander, Lapta, and the wartime game Hitler.

After the war, children’s games became a tool for restoring the normalcy and pleasures of childhood, and for learning the forgotten Jewish culture. In Jewish children’s homes and kibbutzim, children danced and sang modern Hebrew songs, and performed prewar Jewish plays. Children also liked to play new universal games, such as the popular Cymbergaj. However, many of the pre-1939 games were never brought back to life, but perished along with the majority of their players.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf and Immanuel Etkes, eds., Ha-Ḥeder: Meḥkarim, te‘udot, pirke sifrut ve-zikhronot (Tel Aviv, 2010); Morris Raphael Cohen, A Dreamer’s Journey: The Autobiography of Morris Raphael Cohen (New York, 1975). George, Eisen, Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games among the Shadows  (Amherst, 1988). Andrew S. Grove, Swimming Across: A Memoir (New York, 2001). Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust (Berkeley, 2007); Regina Lilientalowa, Dziecko żydowskie (Kraków, 1927); Emanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, ed. and trans. Jacob Sloan (New York, 1974); Jeffrey Shandler, ed., Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust (New Haven, 2002); Yekhiel Shtern, Kheyder un beys-medresh (New York, 1950); Yekhiel Shtern, “A Kheyder in Tyszowce (Tishevits)” in East European Jews in Two Worlds: Studies from the YIVO Annual, ed. Deborah Dash Moore, 51–70 (Evanston, Ill., and New York, 1990); Roman Vishniac, Children of a Vanished World, ed. Mara Vishniac Kohn and Miriam Hartman Flacks (Berkeley, 1999); Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl (New York, 1995).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1.2 YIVO (Vilna): Ethnographic Committee, 1911–1940  (see Early Postwar Testimonies of Jewish Children, Archival Collection of Genia Silkes, Box 2, Folders 18–35).